MORE questions about the NYC DOE Reopening

by Will Johnson, English/SPED Teacher

More than a year into the Covid-19 pandemic, people who work in schools see little evidence that the Department of Education is prepared for Fall 2021. This is not surprising. Let’s not forget that on March 12, 2020, three days before schools shifted to remote instruction, then-Chancellor Carranza mocked the 108,000 New Yorkers who, clearly seeing that disaster was imminent, petitioned the city to shut down school immediately. Carranza joked that he’d shut down the schools once he was presented with a similar petition from “108,000 epidemiologists.”  

This was the loudest statement of the Department of Education’s disregard for the health and safety of its workers and the city, but it wasn’t the deadliest. That honor goes to a March 10, 2020 Department of Ed memo instructing school officials not to report Covid-19 infections to the city health department, effectively obstructing any efforts by the city to track and trace school-based cases of the virus during the pandemic’s early stages. 

We’ll never know how many thousands of lives might have been saved if the Department of Education hadn’t dismissed the 108,000 New Yorkers who rightly called for a shut down, or if DOE leaders hadn’t hidden infections from both city health officials and affected school communities. What we do know is that throughout the pandemic, the DOE has made one thing painfully clear: students, families, and school workers cannot trust the DOE to keep us safe. 

It’s critical to keep this in mind as we move towards the fall, since the Mayor’s office and DOE leaders have made it clear that they intend to fill the schools with as many bodies as they can squeeze in, safety concerns or no. Without a doubt, DOE and city officials are negotiating with UFT President Mulgrew to figure out how they can make this happen. While Mulgrew is likely raising concerns about school safety in these meetings, we can’t know that for sure since UFT members — much like students and their families — are excluded entirely from conversations about the conditions under which we will be asked to work and live in the coming school year. 

We can’t trust the DOE and we can’t afford to wait until September to hear them announce whatever disorganized, half-baked plans they have for the millions of students and workers who will be asked to return to poorly ventilated, overcrowded classrooms this fall. And so, before we offer our proposals for a safe reopening of city schools, we ask that the mayor and the DOE stop lying to us. 

We know that, due to decades of neglect, school buildings across the city have outdated ventilation systems and we know that ventilation is critical for creating safe classrooms. We also know that, contrary to repeated claims otherwise, schools contribute to community spread of Covid-19. As the medical journal The Lancet recently reported, if schools are reopened without maintaining substantial safety measures — particularly around ventilation and distancing — they risk becoming sites that “accelerate the pandemic.” This spring, across the country, in states like Michigan that have reopened far more aggressively than New York, we’ve seen dozens of school-based Covid-19 outbreaks per week

We also know that students can both contract and spread Covid-19. Beyond the immediate suffering this causes, the long-term impacts this virus will have on young people are, at this point, a mystery. In New York, our schools remain relatively safe because most students are staying home (60% are fully remote and even more are only part-time in school), allowing for distancing measures that will be impossible if the city rushes into a full reopening this fall. 

Unfortunately, recent announcements from Mayor de Blasio and schools Chancellor Meisha Porter suggest that they are determined not to learn from the countless fatal mistakes city and DOE leaders have made since this pandemic began. Rather than offer detailed plans that address the myriad health and safety concerns shared by students, parents, and school workers alike, de Blasio simply told the city that we should trust his gut, stating that he is opening schools and eliminating the possibility of remote options because he “absolutely believe[s] Covid will continue to go down, vaccinations will go up, recovery will be strong.” For her part, Chancellor Porter issued an announcement about school reopenings that was heavy on optimism and light on details. On ventilation, for example, her only promise was that the DOE would ensure that all classroom ventilation systems are “working.” Mulgrew applauded their announcements and seems bizarrely determined to follow the lead of city officials who’ve repeatedly played fast and loose with school and community safety.

This is unacceptable. Instead of wondering why the majority of the city’s students are unwilling to return to school, DOE and city leaders should acknowledge that they earned the city’s distrust by failing us repeatedly throughout this crisis. We demand that the DOE leadership acknowledge these facts and plan accordingly, instead of repeating false assertions about school safety and mitigation measures. Once DOE and city officials agree to be honest with the city’s workers, students, and families, we ask for their responses to the following questions:

  1. Will the DOE invest in its school ventilation systems so that students and school workers can be confident in the air quality of our school buildings? Up to this point, the DOE’s efforts at improved ventilation have been haphazard and based on outdated (pre-Covid) regulations. Workplace health and safety professionals stress that, for classrooms to be safe, they have a minimum of 6 air exchanges per hour and (if portable HEPA filters are being used) a minimum of 3-4 portable HEPA filters per classroom. Instead of simply asserting that city classrooms will have ventilation that “works,” will the DOE ensure student and worker safety by renovating and overhauling school ventilation systems to comply with the above guidelines?
  2. After more than a year of pandemic-induced trauma, hundreds of thousands of students across the city will come to school with unprecedented needs in the area of mental health and social-emotional development. Unfortunately, they will also return to schools whose counselors and social workers have completely unmanageable caseloads, and whose teachers have completely overcrowded classes. Without adequate staffing, it won’t be possible for social workers, counselors, and teachers to provide students with social-emotional support they will undoubtedly need. Will the DOE lift the hiring freezes on social workers and counselors so that schools can begin increasing their staffing in these positions? Will DOE leaders commit to dramatically reducing counselor and social worker caseloads, along with class sizes, or will they continue to leave students and school workers to sort things out for ourselves in overcrowded, inhumane conditions, as we’ve had to since long before this crisis began? 
  3. Will the DOE maintain (or strengthen) its Covid-19 testing and tracing operations for the coming school year? Since the beginning of this pandemic, public health professionals have emphasized the necessity for comprehensive test and trace programs, yet the DOE’s test and trace operations have been inconsistent at best. Now that the city and DOE have announced that all students will be back in buildings, the city’s test and trace operations will need dramatically increased capacity, yet neither de Blasio nor Porter had a word to say about this in their announcements. We urge the city to strengthen its test and trace program in preparation for the 2021-2022 school year.

It is now fifteen months since the start of the pandemic. Each of the questions above addresses a problem that the DOE has known about since before September 2020. We hope that city and DOE leaders will begin repairing the trust they broke by answering them clearly and honestly, so that students, families, and school workers can begin preparing for the fall.

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